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The Quest for a Simpler Phone: Will Companies Meet the Demand?

TLDR: Dumbphones are gaining popularity as people seek to escape the distractions of smartphones, but phone makers have little incentive to cater to this niche market due to low-profit margins and a shrinking customer base. Some startups are offering premium “minimalist” phones, while others are finding ways to simplify their existing devices.

The iPhone, now 17 years old, changed what we expect from smartphones. A whole generation has grown up with these devices in their lives. Enough time has passed for people to learn about the good and bad of having the world at their fingertips.

The Drawbacks of Constant Connection

Many are now aware of the costs of constant connection. Smartphones can:

  • Sap concentration
  • Impact sleep
  • Worsen mental health issues

Some try to limit screen time with apps, but others are going further. They’re moving to “dumbphones” – phones with basic functions like calling, texting, and alarms. Some look like 90s flip phones. Others are high-end devices that offer a downgraded smartphone experience at a surprising cost.

Who’s Using Dumbphones?

The dumbphone market includes:

  • Parents who want to keep their kids away from smartphone distractions
  • Seniors who want something simple
  • Workers in tough industries who need rugged phones
  • People who can’t afford the average $500+ price of a smartphone
  • Teenagers trying to escape social media as “neo-Luddites”

I decided to try a dumbphone myself. Growing up, I binged video games at friends’ houses until I felt dizzy. As a reporter, I drank in Twitter’s firehose of information and spent hours doomscrolling. During the pandemic, I gave up Twitter but fell into Instagram Reels. The always-on feeling hurt my well-being. A dumbphone seemed perfect for me.

The Struggle to Find a Dumbphone

But finding a dumbphone was harder than I thought. There were few options and even fewer reviews, unlike the millions of smartphone reviews online. I used a “dumbphone finder” from writer and advocate Jose Briones. I chose a CAT-S22 flip phone, a semi-smart device with basic apps like Google Maps. It costs $69 and ends call with a satisfying snap.

As I learned more, I realized the lack of reviews wasn’t the only issue. Despite rising demand, phone makers have little interest in making these devices. With smartphones dominating sales, tech giants have little reason to make new dumbphones or update existing ones.

The Economics of Dumbphones

The dumbphone market is small but real. In the US, feature phones – basic dumbphones with stripped-down capabilities – makeup just 2% of the handset market. But that’s still 2.8 million devices sold this year, according to Counterpoint Research.

Jim Roberts, a marketing professor at Baylor University, says a surprising 20% of the world’s dumbphones are sold in the US. “Consumers are finding that they’re not any happier, or are less happy than they’d like to be,” he says. “And they spend so much time on their phones that they’re seeing that as the culprit.”

Globally, the feature phone market is projected to bring in $10.6 billion this year, according to Statista Market Insights. But while phone makers earn notable sums from feature phones, they struggle to profit from the basic hardware. And it’s not worth it to try to improve the business, especially since phones are often a small part of their overall companies.

Tech giants make money on software or specialised hardware with hefty price tags. They have diverse revenue streams. Samsung, for instance, earns billions each year from semiconductors. These companies have little reason to cater to the small, low-profit dumbphone market.

As Briones, who quit smartphones in 2019, puts it: “The big tech giants don’t want anything that has to do with reducing your smartphone usage because they are not making money on the hardware of the device.”

The Future of Dumbphones

Thomas Husson, an analyst at Forrester Research, doesn’t expect many dumbphone sellers to survive long-term. Profit margins are thin, and the old networks these devices run on may disappear. Plus, many jobs require smartphones, even low-wage ones. There may not be enough customers to support even the savviest dumbphone business.

One way forward? Develop a niche, premium brand. Some startups are trying this, offering modern takes on feature phones.

Light, based in New York, makes customizable “Light Phones” that minimize distractions. “What we’re trying to do with the Light Phone isn’t to create a dumb phone, but to create a more intentional phone,” co-founder Joe Hollier told CNBC. Light Phones cost $299—comparable to low- or mid-range smartphones. High-priced, but the only way to make a niche product viable.

Light Phones are for “digital detoxers” who want some connectivity without sacrificing style or function. They call, text, keep a calendar, get directions, stream podcasts and music, and take notes. “That’s a good set of features that I’ve been able to learn how to live with,” says Briones.

Swiss brand Punkt also debuted a simplified smartphone this year for $750. They’re betting high-end consumers want familiar-looking hardware with fewer features.

These devices compete with other models for users who want to reduce digital dependence without a full hardware switch.

That’s what US-based Ghost Mode offers. Rather than selling its own phone, it reprograms a Google Pixel 6a to a customer’s specs, with only the apps they need, then locks the phone into those settings. At $600, it’s not cheap, but may appeal more than leaving smartphones entirely.

My Dumbphone Journey

I tried my CAT S-22 for a week. It lets me call, text, and access some messaging apps. My web use dropped to an hour a day. I focused better on my surroundings, books, and music.

But I missed my library app.

So I switched back to my old Samsung Galaxy—with a catch. I installed Minimalist Phone, an app that replaces flashy icons and backgrounds with a stark black-and-white interface. I kept a few messaging apps but got rid of nearly everything else.

I don’t miss them.

Despite growing interest in dumber phones, the success of these devices is still uncertain. But for some, a simpler approach to smartphones may be enough.


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